Top positive review
• “The Perfect Match” is a story about a mega-corporation named “Centillion
Reviewed in the United States on January 14, 2018
Very Creative! Written by Ken Liu, and published by Saga Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc. in 2016, this book is a collection of fifteen short stories that are of the Science Fiction & Fantasy genre. Some of the stories contain elements of both genres, and some are much more realistic (The Literomancer). I will list each short story and add my observations about them:
• “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species” is a story about how different species in the universe might produce or read books. It was an interesting read with some creative thoughts. The author concludes the chapter with the words: “Everyone makes books.”
• “State Change” is a story about a young woman named Rina who believes that her soul resides in an ice cube that she keeps frozen and keeps near her at all times. She has multiple refrigerators in her apartment, and one underneath her desk at work. She carries the ice cube in an insulated carrier. She has a girlfriend named Amy who believes that her soul resides in a pack of cigarettes. They believe that if the ice cube melts, or if the cigarette pack becomes empty, they will die. Rina meets Jimmy at the office. His soul resides in a salt shaker. Eventually, the cigarette pack is empty, and the ice cube melts.
• “The Perfect Match” is a story about a mega-corporation named “Centillion.” It is reminiscent of Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook, all rolled into one. Its marketing thrust is like that of Google. It has a female persona that speaks to its clients like Siri or Alexa does today. The voice is named “Tilly.” Tilly is ubiquitous. She tells people what to eat, what movies to see, who they should date, everything about their lives. Sai meets his new neighbor, Jenny, and they decide to abandon Tilly and Centillion, and to work actively to destroy the company and regain their individual freedoms. Needless to say, the plan fails. This story is spooky because it has already begun—started by the companies I just listed.
• “Good Hunting” is a story set in Southern or Southeastern China, not too far from Hong Kong. Liang and his father are demon hunters. Father has a sword named “Swallowtail” that he uses to kill the demons, who are shape-shifters. The particular demons in question are able to change from human form into the form of foxes. Although intended to follow in his father’s footsteps, Liang befriends a demon who can transform into the shape of a white fox. Instead of killing her, he hides her from searchers and brings her food. The British arrive in Hong Kong, and they build a railroad. Soon, the demons disappear, and father and son no longer have work. Liang moves to Hong Kong and becomes an engineer with expertise in metal working and steam power. After a time, he meets his demon friend, who has also traveled to Hong Kong in order to survive. The story takes some interesting twists after this.
• “The Literomancer” is a story that is set in Taiwan, beginning on September 18, 1961. The protagonist is a fourth-grade American girl named Lilly Dyer. She had recently moved to Taiwan from Texas with her family when her father was transferred by his employer. Lily is picked on by the other little girls at the American school where she attends classes, and she is not accepted by the Chinese children in the neighborhood. She meets an old man named “Kan,” and his adopted grandson named “Teddy.” Kan is a man who came to Taiwan from the mainland of China to escape both the Communists and the Nationalists. He was educated in America at Harvard. Teddy wants to play baseball for the Red Sox. Lilly finds parts of a classified letter written by her father, and she reads it. Later she shares one of the words in the letter with Kan, and then tells her father about it. That was a very big mistake.
I was living in Taiwan during all of 1961, and I found at least one aspect of the story to be not very believable. The author has a political axe to grind, here, and he takes the side of the mainlanders against the native Taiwanese people. One of the stories he tells is one that I heard many times while I was in Taiwan, except that the roles of villains and innocent people was reversed. Mainlanders absolutely controlled the government, the military, the educations system, and the financial systems in 1961. I know. I was there. Also, a classified letter with the words that her father allegedly wrote, and that Lilly found and read, would never have left the confines of a secure location, nowadays called a “SCIF” (Secure Classified Information Facility). It could never have been found in somebody’s home, like Lily’s. The part of the story that referred to the origins of the Chinese written language was, however, quite good. Even though Mr. Liu did not use the conventional term “radical” to describe the roots of the more common Chinese characters (although he did in a later story in the book), his descriptions were still accurate, as were his Wade-Giles romanizations of Mandarin words. (The Chinese language has no alphabet.)
• “Simulacrum” is a story about a man who invents, develops and uses simulacra. Paul Larimore is a technical entrepreneur who has invented several models of simulacra, including a very realistic artificial intelligence for them. He even uses them as a substitute for pornography. One day, his thirteen year-old daughter, Anna, is sent home from school early because she is ill. She walks in on her naked father and four female simulacra engaged in a simulated sex fantasy. She is disgusted, and by the time she leaves for college, she will no longer speak to her father, or have any contact with him. Eventually, Larimore makes a simulacrum of his daughter Anna that is frozen at about the age of seven. The story is mildly interesting, but I really didn’t like it much.
• “The Regular” is an excellent story about the way a female ex-cop, and now private detective, tracks down a serial killer who preys on prostitutes. He murders them, mutilates their bodies, steals all of their valuables, and then uses films that they have made to blackmail their clients. He is called the “Watcher.” The detective is Ruth Law, and she was fired from the police department when she failed to use her firearm in a hostage situation that, ultimately, resulted in four deaths. Leave out the sci-fi element of the story, and this is just as good as the best of the police and crime genre of fiction written today. This author could easily transition from sci-fi and fantasy to police procedurals and murder mysteries if he wished. The story is excellent.
• “The Paper Menagerie” is about a little boy named Kan, whose Chinese mother is able to make origami paper animals and then breathe life into them using magic. The paper animals then become animated and lifelike, with behaviors mimicking their real-life templates. The first animal she makes is an origami paper tiger made from leftover Christmas gift-wrapping paper, so the tiger has the stripes from the candy-cane design on the paper. Not only can the tiger move around, it can also growl. The boy loves his paper menagerie, which also includes a goat, a deer, a water buffalo, and a shark made from tin foil that chases goldfish around their bowl.
Kan’s father is an American, and the family lives in Connecticut. His mother was selected by his father from a catalog of Chinese women that, supposedly, came from Hong Kong and spoke English. This wasn’t true, of course, but Kan’s father purchased and married his mother anyway, and they traveled back to Connecticut. Kan, also called “Jack,” was born a year later. I thought this story was very poignant. I liked it a lot.
• “An Advanced Readers’ Picture Book of Comparative Cognition” is about various forms of intelligent life in the universe, and how they perceive, remember and think. The author describes giant single-celled beings living in a warm sea who briefly merge and exchange all knowledge, becoming two identical individuals. He also describes a race that travels in ships that accelerate forever, traveling to the end of the universe. The protagonist is a woman who grew up on a boat and now wishes to join a group of humans who have decided to journey to the focal point of the Sun’s gravitational lens, which is fourteen times the distance from Pluto to the Sun out into empty space in the hope of hearing radio signals from extraterrestrial intelligent life. I didn’t really like it much.
• “The Waves” is a story about a group of humans who have decided to travel directly to the stars in a form of generation ship that will travel for 400 years. Their goal is a star system known as 61 Virginis. Unexpectedly, the ship receives a message from Earth that changes everything. As a background, traveler Maggie Chao is reading old Chinese fables to some of the children on the ship. When the pilgrims arrive at their destination, they learn that the system is already inhabited—by humans. Or, at least, what used to be humans. The pilgrims have been passed by in their journey by ever faster ships that have reached the planet ahead of them. It was interesting to see where the author went with this concept, because he didn’t stop there. I thought this story was pretty good.
• “Mono No Aware” is a story set in deep space in the not-too-distant future. An asteroid has been detected heading for earth, and America has decided to build great “generation” space ships to travel to a distant star system in the hope of survival. Hiroto is a young Japanese boy whose mother has arranged for him to board the only starship life boat to survive the ensuing wars on earth. He is the very last surviving member of the Japanese people. Later, at age twenty-five, his job aboard the ship is to monitor the vast light-sail that powers it. He detects a tear in the fabric of the sail, and it is driving the ship off course. He volunteers to repair it, and takes a repair kit out to the sail. He succeeds, and becomes a hero to the others—but not without cost. His strategy is modeled after the Japanese board game, “Go.”
• “All The Flavors” is about a group of Chinese immigrant placer miners in Idaho City, Idaho who arrive there shortly after two outlaws, Obee and Crick (who call themselves “The Missouri Boys”) burn the town after murdering a saloon proprietor. The year is 1865. Lily Seaver is a little girl who lives in the town and is fascinated by the music of the Chinese men, and by the smell of their cooking. Her father is a merchant whose store was destroyed in the fire, but who is now rebuilding. Lily likes to roam around the area outside the town, and she comes across the placer mine being operated by the “Chinamen.” She hides behind a tree and watches them and listens to their singing. She is there when Obee and Crick arrive with guns to rob the miners, and she sees their leader, Lao Guan (called Logan by the locals), get shot by the outlaws. But after Lao Guan has been shot in the shoulder, he is still able to kill one of the outlaws with a stone he has picked up and thrown. Lily tries to run, but she falls and is injured. The miners treat her wounds, and they treat and suture Logan before they all return to the miner’s house in town. They use traditional Chinese herbs and potions, along with acupuncture.
The next scene shows Logan teaching Lily the rudiments of the game “Go,” known as “Wei Qi” by the Chinese, by scratching a board grid in the dirt with his knife, and using lotus and watermelon seeds as game pieces. He tells Lily the story of Guan Yu, the Chinese God of War. He relates how Guan Yu was taught to play Wei Qi by his father, using lotus seeds and watermelon seeds as game pieces. The story proceeds from there, and the author presents a couple of footnotes at the end. This story is much more like historical fiction than science fiction or fantasy. At 87 pages, it is a bit long for a short story. It is closer to being a novella in my view. I enjoyed reading it, however.
• “A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel” is alternative history fiction in that it is supposed that a two-tube tunnel has been built between Seattle, Tokyo and Shanghai. It is set in the early to mid-twentieth century. It took ten years to construct the 5,880 mile long tunnel: 1929 to 1938. Seven million men worked on the project, the majority of which were furnished by Japan and the United States. The breakthrough between the two ends of the tunnel took place in 1938.
The protagonist is a Formosan (Taiwanese) who calls himself Charlie. Charlie was one of the diggers who dug the portion of the tunnel between Shanghai and the halfway point. There is a rest area midway through the tunnel, under the Pacific Ocean, where travelers can rest and eat on their journeys between Asia and America. It is called Midpoint City, and a number of people live there permanently, including Charlie. The trip from Shanghai to Seattle takes about two days due to the maximum speed of the monorail carriages that travel through the tunnel being only 120 mph, although it is hoped that it might soon be increased to 200 mph. Still, it is much faster than the zeppelins, aeroplanes or ships that currently carried passengers at the time. The story is a metaphorical description of the history of how the Japanese military treated the Chinese and the Manchurians from the 1920s until the end of WWII. It is well worth reading.
• “The Litigation Master and the Monkey King” is a story that tells us how, perhaps, the massacre of the city of YangZhou came to be known, even after a brutal suppression by the Manchu emperors. Apparently, the populace of the entire city was wiped out— murdered by the Manchus on the order of Prince Dodo. The slaughter lasted ten days, and every single Chinese witness was killed, but one was able to write a book about it. The book was hidden, and later smuggled out to Japan, but the Manchus searched relentlessly for it. Later, the words of a children’s song in the form of a puzzle led scholars to track down the book and reveal the truth. This is a good story, and it tells us something of the history of China.
• “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” is a story about a Chinese-American husband (Evan Wei) and his Japanese-American wife (Akemi Kirino) team who invent a method for anybody to travel back and look at a time in the past. She is a physicist. He is a historian. The only problem with their technique, which uses quantum entanglement between two previously undiscovered sub-atomic particles similar to photons, is that once the place and time has been viewed, it is lost forever and can never be viewed again. (Thus, the title of the story.) The historian husband is the lead member of the team, and he decides that, rather than allow scholars and scientists to use the technology first, it should be reserved for the families of the Chinese victims of Japanese military atrocities in Pingfang, on the outskirts of Harbin, Manchuria in the early part of WWII. This arbitrary viewing of the past leads many people to believe that history is becoming like Swiss Cheese, with many holes in it.
This decision by Dr. Wei turns out to be quite controversial, however, and Congress holds hearings that result in the US government shutting the project down. Many people, called “deniers” do not believe that the technology is real, and Dr. Wei loses his teaching tenure. It seems that a unit of the Japanese Imperial Army, called Unit 731, engaged in terrible atrocities under the guise of medical research at the that place during the war. As the war ended, the camp was destroyed leaving little trace, the unit was disbanded, and everybody involved was sworn to secrecy. Parts of this story are historically true, and have been validated. The Japanese government, however, has never formally apologized for this particular horror of war, and the United States was complicit in the cover-up so that it could obtain the results of the bio-warfare and medical research.
The author, like very many other Chinese, is very much focused on this horrible chapter in human history. To this day, many Chinese hold a visceral hatred for the Japanese and their government. What everybody seems to have forgotten, however, is that human history is rife with events where the innocent have been tortured and slaughtered. Has the author forgotten his own words in an earlier story: “The Litigation Master and the Monkey King”? It wasn’t the Japanese who slaughtered the people of HangZhou, China. It was the Manchus. Or how about, more recently, the persecution of the Falun Gong in modern-day China? In a report compiled by “World Organization to Investigate the Persecution of Falun Gong,” we learn that, as recently as 2004, the persecution continued. According to the report:
“Today the persecution of Falun Gong still continues in China. As of the end of March 2004, 918 Falun Gong practitioners have been confirmed to die from persecution. More than 100,000 Falun Gong practitioners have been detained and imprisoned. Those who openly express and practice their belief are met with tortures, arbitrary arrests and detentions. Forced Labor camps, mental hospitals, state-owned media and the law have been misused as tools of severe human rights violations. Force [sic] labor and selling organs of executed prisoners are still common.”
People should read this report, which is available on the Internet. We can see from it that atrocities are not unique to the Japanese. It’s happening now to the Rohingyans. It’s going on in Syria. Have we forgotten the Cambodian genocide: “The Cambodian genocide … was carried out by the Khmer Rouge (KR) regime led by Pol Pot between 1975 and 1979 in which an estimated 1.5 to 3 million Cambodians died or were killed by the regime.” (Wikipedia) Humans have been acting like this for thousands of years. We humans are a deeply flawed species
The book, while meriting a four-star award, would have been complete without this final story, in my view. I don’t think it was as well-written as most of the other stories, and it was too overtly political in nature to fit with the rest of the book. I thought “The Regular” and “The Paper Menagerie” were the best of the stories—definitely worth reading. This is a four star work that will both entertain and educate. I recommend it.